Our high school cars deserve more credit than we give them

Tuesday, November 27, 2018 - 4:42pm

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File Photo/Daily

Sometimes I dim my computer screen and meander down the streets of my hometown via the panoramic lens of Google Street View. This is a pathetic confession, I know, but also an unexpected remedy for the occasional pangs of nostalgia.

In my head, I relate these virtual escapes to the same sort of self-reflection preached by Henry David Thoreau and his transcendentalist clique. I’ll pause for a second and admit that this analogy would have undoubtedly yielded a sarcastic red pen comment from my high school literature teacher, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity.

Anyhow, I bring this guilty pleasure of mine up not to embarrass myself, but rather to provide the context for how I found my 2007 Subaru Forester parked in front of my high school on Google Street View. That is right, my car has preserved a high school legacy that beats any state championship trophy or school newspaper byline.

I am rather proud of this accomplishment. Not just because securing this parking space likely required pressing the snooze button only once and successfully parallel parking. But also, because my car is scrapbooked into the town’s internet identity — an achievement much more impressive than any yearbook superlative.

Before I go any further, I should clarify that while I will refer to the car as “mine” for simplicity’s sake, it is not. It is my parents’. I didn’t sign the check at the used car dealership. It was my dad who spent hours perusing Craigslist and chatting with car salesmen. And it was my mom who researched “safest cars for teenage drivers.” This is how it was decided I would drive a Subaru.

Subaru. The car breed synonymous with Vermonters who I would imagine spend Saturday mornings loading their mountain bike into the trunk along with a packed lunch of Clif bars and Soylent. Subaru drivers wear flannel, don handlebar mustaches and will likely be the first ones to slap on a Bernie 2020 bumper sticker. In other words, my L.L. Bean cable knit sweater probably isn’t enough to earn the distinction of an archetype Subaru driver.

Yet, the transaction that resulted in me driving a Subaru eerily resembles the signature “precious little girl” trope beloved by the Subaru marketing team. This probably also explains why my parents affixed a “Caution New Driver” bumper sticker to the rear window. I think that is all the evidence you need to confirm I was the oldest child.

My car is named Silvia. I am not sure what prompted my 16-year-old self to select that name. Most obviously, the nickname aptly matches her grey exterior and silver spray-painted rims –– the handiwork of her previous owner.

Assigning a name to your first car was a routine practice among my high school peers. Silvia’s friends included a sedan named Ruby and a Jeep named Conrad. I think the tradition humanized the metal frames of our literal high school ride or dies.

Silvia’s upholstered seats reeked of chlorine from all the swim team carpools where we opted to not change out of our swimsuits. Her glove compartment housed a collection of guilty pleasure CDs that would likely cause embarrassment if my Spotify account now showed them as recently played. Besides the sticky residue of unidentifiable liquids from can drive fundraisers, the trunk stored a snow scraper that was tossed between my sister and me after removing the inches of overnight snow accumulation.

As I would often explain to my mother when justifying Silvia’s unkempt nature, the cleanliness of the car often correlated with the stress I was experiencing that particular week. The ACT was looming that coming Saturday? Please excuse the loose practice tests strewn across the backseat. Oh, the AP Spanish midterm was tomorrow? Look for the dozens of subjunctive verb flashcards crammed into the center console. It was peak swim season with 14-hour days? I am sorry, Dad, for the six water bottles that never seemed to return to the dishwasher.

I admit that the first time I shifted Silvia’s gear into drive I felt like I had finally earned the classification of a true American teenager. The mobility allowed by the automobile had propelled generations of teenagers to engage in the most lauded pop culture shenanigans. I felt empowered by the possibility of cutting class like Ferris Bueller, dancing with the T-Birds to Greased Lightning or speeding down main street like in “Herbie: Fully Loaded.” 

For a moment, a limitlessness to my existence was introduced. An existence beyond hometown borders or parent drop-offs. However, in reality, Silvia’s rebellious possibility was quelled by my own conservative personality. That is, I can count on my fingers the number of times she reached 60 mph while I was driving. In fact, her driving record while I manned the wheel probably more closely resembled a car parked in a Florida condominium.

Silvia rarely traveled more than a few miles at a time. This is evidenced by the rare occasions that the heater would actually warm up before reaching the destination. Most subzero mornings were spent driving with mittens and relying on the liquid heat of Earl Grey tea to warm my body.

So, unlike what the ’80s movie canon had led me to believe, my car did not deliver many crazy adolescent escapades. It did not cruise rural Michigan till godless hours of the night. She never went to a drive-in movie with a boy. Nor was the hiding place for illicit substances. I guess sometimes I swore in the car, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify as material for the next teenage flick.

I occasionally dwell on the rather platonic highlight reel of my high school years. But then, I remember perhaps the most valuable tenet of Silvia’s companionship was beyond the coming of age narrative we liken to teenage car ownership.

Silvia listened to me rehearse Spanish oral conversaciones. She patiently endured the endless duets of “Wicked” with a best friend whose friendship later crackled amidst the changing leaves of our first college semester. She guarded the confessions that were divulged during gossip sessions about school dances. I opened college acceptance emails in Silvia. I slammed her door when group projects failed miserably. And she comforted me when the lingering goals of high school slipped away from the window of attainability.

Our first cars see us at our most raw moments of adolescence. They are our most intimate confidants throughout high school. For those of us without cars in college, the discretion that a high school car was able to provide is no longer guaranteed. Emotion is harder to conceal with the perpetual company of 28,000 undergraduates. I think that is why I take comfort in the ability to plug in an address and see sweet little Silvia right where I remember her the most. Just waiting for a hometown visit and the chance to plug in the aux cord for the best type of high school reunion.